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Laundering a beer fortune into political power, one spit-take at a time
Busch heiress errs with "White Haven" gaffe, Planogram Drama-O-Rama + more!
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Last time we checked in on Trudy Busch Valentine, the intrepid Missourian non-profiteer and beer heiress had just launched her campaign for retiring U.S. Senator Roy Blunt’s seat. It was a rocky rollout: pretty much immediately after she announced her candidacy, The Intercept published a report pointing out that Valentine had received top honors at the 1977 installment of the notoriously white-supremacist Veiled Prophet Ball, and returned again to the same event for a victory lap in 1990.1 Neat stuff!
At the time, I argued that by entering the race late as a donor-class Democrat, Valentine—the daughter of the late, iconic Anheuser-Busch patriarch Gussie Busch and step-sister to hard-charging August Busch III, who took the family to the top of Beer Mountain before his same-named failson, known as “The Fourth,” sent it tumbling down the other side and into Carlos Brito’s clutches—had made herself an inadvertent embodiment of how economic capital is laundered into political power:
That she can enter a Senate race late with instant name recognition and a big-time bankroll seems a function less of her career in nursing and nonprofits (she has no political experience; to be fair, neither does [lefty-populist primary frontrunner Lucas] Kunce, though also to be fair, he’s been campaigning for a literal year at this point) and more of her family’s money and longstanding status in The Show-Me State and the access it’s granted her to party powerbrokers.
Anyway, I’m sure that whole Veiled Prophet gaffe taught Valentine the importance of focusing her campaign on how she plans to materially improve constituents’ lives rather than trying to coast into the upper chamber on misplaced nostalgia for an oligarchic clan whose 20th-century rituals look pretty backwards under contemporary scrutiny. Now, to take a big sip of my Budweiser and watch her first campaign ad, which hit the internet last week…
[spits lukewarm adjunct lager all over monitor]
Trudy, baby, what are you doing?! The video highlights Grant’s Farm, a longtime Busch family estate,2 which Valentine calls it her “family’s place of renewal.” In the spot, she voices some standard centrist palaver over b-roll of her brushing horses and wandering through the bucolic tract like a Real Missourian™️. She also talks about her family and the challenges they’ve faced losing her husband to cancer and son to opioids. It’s fairly straightforward campaign material… or it would be, except, as The New York Post was quick to note, Grant’s Farm used to be a plantation called “White Haven” that “was built by and profited from slave labor.” This does not come up in the video!
It’s important to note that the Busch family did not operate Grant’s Farm—named for former president General Ulysses S. Grant—as a plantation. Valentine’s grandfather, August Anheuser Busch Sr., acquired the land in 1903, and successive generations of Busches turned it into an opulent country compound replete with a petting zoo, beer garden, and more. But nevertheless, the land was maintained and worked by chattel slaves: according to the National Parks Service’s history of the site, Grant’s father-in-law owned as many as 30 slaves on the property, and both Grant and his wife kept personal slaves until freeing them in 18593 as the country hurtled towards civil war. In other words, Grant’s Farm is hardly the font of harmless rural Americana that Valentine clearly hopes to draw on in the ad. It’s a place hewn from the central shame of American history, and you’d think a wealthy heiress whose senatorial campaign is already clouded with allegations of racism would have handlers smart enough to avoid shooting a fucking TV commercial about it. Guess not!
To be clear, no one is saying that Valentine is responsible for atoning for that central shame, nor that the Busch family profited from slavery. Still, the optics are dismal for a rich white candidate in a state where over 20% of African-American citizens remain under the poverty line to this day. “If she’s putting her hat in the ring for the U.S. Senate, she needs to address this,” Katrina Moore, an associate professor of history who studies slavery at Saint Louis University, told the Post’s Ben Kesslen. (Busch Valentine’s campaign didn’t respond to his request for comment, but they did pull the candidate’s tweet about it, so uh… consider it addressed?)
Whether this latest race-based whoopsie4 hurts her chances in the Democratic primary this August remains to be seen. The Democratic field has nearly a dozen candidates total, and rival Kunce’s candidacy for MO’s second Senate seat reported the biggest fundraising haul last quarter, but Valentine (who has yet to file a fundraising report because she jumped into the race so late) presumably has both the dough to self-fund and the contacts to stay competitive. Most important: she’s got a name that still carries weight in the land of Budweiser. Her lineage may wind up being a double-edged sword, though. As Devin Thomas O’Shea wrote in a terrific essay on the Busch dynasty for Protean Magazine earlier this year [italics his; bolding mine]:
The old WASP families saw themselves as custodians of property. Their wealth was not really theirs, but belonged to the family, and it was their job to enjoy it up until the point that one might sabotage the generational handoff.
This hierarchical way of preserving class often results in not only inbreeding, but also increasingly warped iterations of the family, with each successive generation more insulated by their wealth, more detached from reality.
This is clarifying context. “Is Trudy Busch Valentine racist?” is the wrong question to ask. Personally, I get the sense she’s just obtuse and doesn’t realize how abnormal and Gilded Age-y and gross this stuff reads today. But that brings us to the right question to ask: namely, whether being literally and figuratively ensconced on the property of America’s greatest beer dynasty—being a steward of capital, as it were, or at least a fellow traveler benefiting from it—puts Valentine irreparably out of touch with the needs of her fellow Missourians. Does it? Only the ballot box can answer that one.
📬 Good post alert
Bonus: Kate Bernot (Good Beer Hunting, Craft Beer & Brewing) Jess Infante (Brewbound), and I discussing a lot of these headlines on our most recent Twitter Spaces session of Beer Byliners, which you can listen back to here!
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Valentine’s daughter attended the ball as recently as 2010, which… man… I dunno. Maybe stop going to this thing?
There’s some irony that Valentine, running for the Democratic nomination, can’t stop stepping on the rake of identity politics that national party bosses have increasingly made central to the present-day liberal brand. It’s not the same as Nancy Pelosi kneeling in kente cloth to commemorate George Floyd and then thanking him for getting murdered so one decent court verdict could fix racism forever… but it’s not totally different, either!